12.2 No master
One of the most famous canonical discourses on the topic of selfhood is the ‘Discourse on the characteristics of non-self’ (Anattā-lakkhaṇa-sutta, SN 22.59). The discourses are often plotted using a matrix that combines a scheme of investigation with a given topology of items. For instance, one can take a certain property or quality, and investigate how it applies to a certain domain or range of phenomena. Table 1 provides a synoptic view of how this contemplative method is instantiated in central section of the Anattā-lakkhaṇa-sutta.
|Physical form is uncertain
|Physical form is unsatisfactory
|Physical form is non-self
|Feelings are uncertain
|Feelings are unsatisfactory
|Feelings are non-self
|Perceptions are uncertain
|Perceptions are unsatisfactory
|Perceptions are non-self
|Coactions are uncertain
|Coactions are unsatisfactory
|Coactions are non-self
|Consciousness is uncertain
|Consciousness is unsatisfactory
|Consciousness is non-self
Table 1. The contemplative structure of the Anattā-lakkhaṇa-sutta.
In this discourse, the scheme of investigation is based on three characteristics: uncertainty (anicca), suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and non-self (an-attā, attā is the Pāli equivalent of the Sanskrit ātman, Self), which are applied to a fivefold domain: physical body (rūpa), hedonic feelings (vedanā), perceptions or recognitions (sañña), co-actions (saṅkhara), and consciousness (viññāṇa). This fivefold domain (the ‘five aggregates’) is a very common and pervasive topology used throughout the discourses to break down experience in its most relevant constitutive elements. The discourse thus proceeds by exhausting all the possible permutations, namely, by applying the three characteristics to each of the five domains of investigation and reaching a similar conclusion in each case.
The Buddha’s discussion of non-self can be understood in two main ways. On the one hand, it can be taken as an ontological theory about what the self is or is not, or whether there is something that could be called ‘self’ and what that is. On the other hand, non-self can be understood as a perception (belonging to the aggregate of sañña), namely, as a way of looking at phenomena for achieving a specific soteriological purpose: freedom. The underlying idea is that, ordinarily, all the five aggregates are appropriated as ‘my own’ or ‘belonging to me.’ This appropriation is an expression of a fundamental attitude at mastery exercised over the aggregates, which nonetheless are inherently uncertain. Uncovering this uncertainty thus reveals that the attempt to master them is the condition and source for the experience of dissatisfaction; and by realizing this, one can decide to let go of that attitude of appropriation and thus be free from any concern for mastery, by simply realizing that aggregates are ‘not myself’ and never were. In this latter case, non-self is not regarded as (delivering) a theory about selfhood, but rather as a practice of training perception.
In most of today’s presentations, the first ontological approach seems the most commonly shared to the extent that it is often taken for granted. In Lecture Two, we discussed some of the problems that this interpretation might engender, insofar as it can be taken either to an extreme form of (neuro)nihilism or lead into a complex dispute about how to best conceptualize selfhood (as a process, as a composite phenomenon, and so forth). In what follows, we are going to take instead the second, pragmatic approach as the most adequate to capture the meaning of non-self in the early discourses. In doing so, we follow the interpretation that is still openly advocated in some branches of today’s Theravāda tradition, and particularly by the Thai Forest tradition. An important representative of this lineage, Ajahn Ṭhānissaro, in his series of talks Selves & Not-Self. The Buddhist Teaching on Anattā (2011), summarizes the point thus:
The path begins with discernment—the factors of right view and right resolve—and discernment begins with this basic question about which actions are really skillful: “What, when I do it, will lead to long-term welfare and happiness?” The Buddha’s teaching on not-self—and his teaching on self—are, in part, answers to this question. To fit into this question, perceptions of self and perceptions of not-self are best viewed as kamma or actions: actions of identification and dis-identification. In the terms of the texts, the perception of self is called an action of “I-making” and “my-making (ahaṃkāra mamaṃkāra).” The perception of not-self is part of an activity called the “not-self contemplation (anattānupassanā).” Thus the question becomes: When is the perception of self a skillful action that leads to long-term welfare and happiness, when is the perception of not self a skillful action that leads to long-term welfare and happiness?
This is the reverse of the way that the relationship between questions of kamma and not-self are usually understood. If you’ve ever taken an introductory course on Buddhism, you’ve probably heard this question: “If there is no self, who does the kamma, who receives the results of kamma?” This understanding turns the teaching on not-self into a teaching on no self, and then takes no self as the framework and the teaching on kamma as something that doesn’t fit in the framework. But in the way the Buddha taught these topics, the teaching on kamma is the framework and the teaching of not-self fits into that framework as a type of action. In other words, assuming that there really are skillful and unskillful actions, what kind of action is the perception of self? What kind of action is the perception of not-self?
So, to repeat, the issue is not, “What is my true self?” but “What kind of perception of self is skillful and when is it skillful, what kind of perception of notself is skillful and when is it skillful?” (Ṭhānissaro, 2011, 9).
This pragmatic perspective helps better elucidate the Discourse on the characteristics of non-self. The discourse is articulated into three parts. The first concerns the nature of anattā, the second (synthesized in Table 1 above) introduces the three characteristics together, and the final section presents how this investigation leads to full liberation. Often enough, commentators tend to focus on the second part without stressing that the first part provides a working definition of how attā should be understood, and the third illustrates the purpose for which one should practice this teaching. The goal of the Buddha in this discourse is not simply to assert that ‘there is no self’ (an ontological statement) but rather to guide the audience towards a certain understanding, which requires, as a means of engendering deeper understanding, a specific way of dealing with attā.
The first part of the discourse reads:
The same scheme is thus applied to the other four domains of hedonic feelings, perceptions, co-actions, and consciousness. Self (attā) is identified as the successful mastery of uncertainty. Uncertainty is here implied by the idea of affliction, which is something that is unwelcomed and contrary to one’s will. If I were my own body (or its master), I could prevent it from becoming afflicted. Notice that this assumption entails both the certainty of the result (I am master of what I can change according to my own wishes) and the avoidance of pain (I am master because I can be successful in avoiding what I do not want). Selfhood is thus mastery, and mastery is based on aversion to affliction. Affliction, in turn, has to do with a reality that is not configured the way I want it to be. Physical pain or illness is a clear instance of affliction, but painless aging might also be counted as an affliction, or even just any physical shape or appearance (being too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, too light, too dark – the list is endless) that I do not like to have, even if it is physically within the range of normality and health. Eventually, the sheer fact of being mortal, and having no say in my fate, is the more general affliction to which all living beings are bound.
The Buddha’s point is simple: mastery is never fulfilled; it always eventually fails. I can attempt to steer the body towards the state I wish to enjoy, but even if I succeed in this attempt, the result is only provisional, and that state will change. The reason is structural: since any state arises due to certain conditions (my steering, for instance), it is also something contingent (i.e., something that is not always present) that can be lost or fail to be instantiated at all. The very fact that I need to bring the body into a certain state (say, avoid the affliction of hunger through eating some food) presupposes that the body cannot be always in a state of fulfilment (hunger will arise again, it is not eliminated from the nature of the body once and for all by my eating of a meal). Uncertainty is thus a structurally inherent component of any conditional experience.
Often, uncertainty (anicca) is glossed as ‘impermanence,’ which is understood as a rapid flow of becoming and change. But becoming and change are the result of structural uncertainty, nor their cause. They are the symptom of something deeper: conditionality entails that all conditioned states are inherently unstable, regardless of how long they last. Uncertainty does not primarily concern or depend on the frequency or speed of change (i.e., how fast they become something else), but on the very nature of being relational and conditional. Hence, uncertainty is present even when no change seems to be at work. My health is uncertain even when I have no manifest illness, and yet my reality is to become sick at some point; illness is an inherent real possibility that will be actualized at some point just because being healthy means that one is such that illness can arise and health can be lost (AN 5.57).
On the basis of these considerations, anattā could thus be glossed more freely as ‘non-mastery.’ This suggestion is supported by the way the same argument is expanded on in the Cūḷasaccaka Sutta (‘The Shorter Discourse to Saccaka,’ MN 35). In this discourse, the Buddha challenges Agivessana, who holds that the five aggregates are ‘my self.’ Before demolishing this view, the Buddha asks Agivessana whether a king would be able to exercise full power on his own kingdom to execute, fine or banish those who are guilty. Agivessana responds in the affirmative. However, the Buddha swiftly points out that such a power is exactly what one does not have on any of the five aggregates: ‘What do you think, Agivessana? When you say: ‘Material form is my self,’ do you exercise any such power over the material form as to say: ‘let my form be this way; let my form not be that way?’’ (MN 35) Agivessana cannot assert this, since one cannot exercise absolute power on any of the five aggregates.
This conclusion can be interpreted in two ways. The first is ontological: it asserts that the aggregates are not myself. On this interpretation, it states something about their nature and my nature; something about what these things are. The second interpretation is pragmatic: it asserts that the attitude of mastery entailed by selfhood is not applicable to the aggregates, it does not work in practice and is doomed to fail. Now, while the positive attempt at mastering the aggregate easily leads to an ontological view of them as belonging (somehow) to oneself, the pragmatic attitude of foregoing mastery (anattā) does not entail an ontological view about who is the owner of the aggregates, or whether they are self or not. Since one is not acting as though one were a master, the further ontological problem of who this master is becomes meaningless. Hence, it is only from the point of view of an already established attitude of mastery that the ontological interpretation appears relevant. If I want to master something, I must be real, and I must exist in some relation with what I want to master, possibly I must be what I want to master, or be the owner of it, or it must be something that I can appropriate and dominate, and so on. The Buddha’s instruction, however, points in the opposite direction: if one recognizes that mastery is idle and best avoided, it does not matter who I am, what these things are, and whether they are me or mine in some way. These concerns can arise only if selfhood (mastery) is actively at stake, but this is precisely what is foregone when one practices anattā.
This is a crucial point in the discourses: talk about being or existence (what things are) is itself dependent and conditioned by an attitude of appropriation (upādāna). Things exists or are singled out as this or that being because I want to own them somehow. ‘Existence’ (bhava in Pāli) is not a primary notion, and even less a neutral notion. ‘Existence’ (as a notion) has a clear agenda built in it: carving up those elements of experience that are the focus of attitudes aimed at appropriating or mastering them. Ontology is a function of appropriation. And this is one reason why the five aggregates, for an ordinary person that has no training in the Buddha’s teaching, are considered as bound up with appropriation, they are ‘the five appropriated aggregates’ (pañc-upādāna-k-khandhā), and because of that appropriation they become a source of dukkha (SN 56.11).
The second part of the discourse builds on this approach and connects non-mastery with the other two characteristics of uncertainty (anicca) and painfulness (dukkha). The basic scheme applied to the physical body (physical form, rūpa) runs as follows:
‘Mendicants, what do you think, is form certain or uncertain?’
‘Is what is uncertain suffering or happiness?’
‘Is it clever [kallaṃ] to regard what is uncertain, suffering, and subject to change thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?’
‘No, Venerable.’ (SN 22.59)
The Buddha’s questioning presupposes an audience already acquainted with the evidence of uncertainty. In fact, if one strives at mastery, this very attempt entails (at least implicitly) an awareness of the uncertainty of what one wants to master. Mastery makes sense only in a context of uncertainty (there would be no need for mastery with respect to an absolute and unchanging reality). Moreover, if one attempts to master uncertainty, this must be because one somehow realizes that uncertainty is painful and entails affliction. This realization can again be only implicit, and yet it is vital to justify the striving towards mastery. The Buddha’s questioning makes explicit the otherwise tacit premises in the audience’s attitude and then shows that mastery is the least effective strategy given those premises. If one truly appreciates that the body is inherently uncertain, it will be impossible to genuinely strive to mastering it. What is structurally uncertain cannot be mastered. What is by nature subject to change regardless of one’s wishes and wants, cannot be appropriated, dominated, or claimed as ‘my own’ because it simply escapes and ignores any claim of ownership whatsoever. This realization does not concern ontology but practice. The Buddha asks whether it is ‘smart,’ whether ‘it makes sense’ (kalla) to attempt to master what one knows to be uncertain. Isn’t this attempt a blatant performative contradiction? Don’t you see it? Raising these doubts, the Buddha deconstructs the ontological story about the self as being the body, or owning the body, and reveals its practical idleness.
However, the argument takes a crucial step further. What is identified as ‘form’ is immediately associated with one’s own body but actually, even further, encompasses any experience whose content has to do with physical reality. The aggregate of form encompasses a wider range of possible phenomena, and all of them could also fall within the scope of mastery and appropriation. Once the problem with this approach has been noticed, the realization can be generalized as well. As the Buddha explains:
‘This is not mine’ is a way of dismissing mastering, conceived of as (or based on) appropriation; ‘this I am not’ is a way of dismissing mastering conceived of as (or based on) an ontological view of identification with what is mastered. They are just different ways of phrasing the same concern for distinguishing what is secured as ‘self’ from what does not belong to the ‘self’ or is not equally secure. But the difference is untenable. ‘This is not my self’ is a way of expressing a lack of concern for the problem of mastery. One might gloss: ‘it is not my business trying to master this uncertainty.’
In Lecture Two, we discussed Ganeri’s distinction between various layers of selfhood, including the explicit endorsement of contents of experience. In his argument, the Buddha does not reject any endorsement whatsoever, but he contrasts the endorsement of uncertainty against the endorsement of mastery. The endorsement of uncertainty is the acknowledgment that this reality (this living body here, for instance), does belong to ‘my’ experience, namely, it is available to this same cognitive subject who is also reflecting on it. One might say that there is some form of selfhood operative at this level, but this form of selfhood is just a bare ability to take a stance towards contents of experience. This selfhood, if one wants to call it that, is nothing but a perspectival construction from which a first-person perspective arises, and which is integral to the functioning of consciousness. But there is no substantive core associated with this kind of self. The endorsement of mastery, on the contrary, entails a more robust sense of selfhood, which emerges as the master of what is endorsed, along the lines of the king metaphor that the Buddha evokes with Agivessana, and entails taking that perspectival construction of first-person perspective at face value, as pointing to the existence of a real entity (myself) that operates as the ground of actions and cognition, and thus as its fundamental owner and controller.
The Buddha’s argument can be reconstructed as a device that uses the endorsement of uncertainty (the direct and explicit acknowledgment that what is experienced here and right now is uncertain) in order to block, dislodge or disband the endorsement of mastery. Because this body here is uncertain, it cannot be mine; because I do see that this body that appears within my experience is uncertain, it makes no sense for me to become its alleged master, because it is clear already that this attempt is doomed to fail. In this way, the first-person perspective is used to flare up and eventually relinquish selfhood as a form of mastery. Selfhood emerges at the very rudimentary and basic level of experience as the bare ability to connect contents of experience with the field in which those contents appear (or as an awareness of that same field, if you like), but the awareness of their uncertainty prevents any further endorsement of that selfhood. If ordinary selfhood is based on mastery, then this result does not amount to any enaction of ordinary selfhood (although at a more refined level and using a broader notion of selfhood one might dispute that some minimal form of selfhood is at play).
Again, the Buddha’s argument is not meant to provide a general theory of selfhood (what the self is, how it works, that constitutes it, and so forth). It is a specific practical tool for reflection, aimed at a specific target. The target is mastery of uncertainty, and the tool is aimed at making apparent its unviability. This leaves open the possibility of debating the ontological question of what selfhood is or how it could be best defined. But the ontological debate is left open because the Buddha’s project is not concerned with it, and solving this ontological question is not regarded as necessary, or even helpful, in addressing its more specific target. It does not matter what the nature of the self is, what matters is that mastery of uncertainty is impossible, and if one sees uncertainty, one already knows it. Enacting a self as a master of uncertainty is acting in bad faith, deluding oneself. The Buddha’s discussion is just meant to bring this delusion forefront, make it explicit, and let it dissolve.
However, the purpose of the argument is not just that of letting go of mastery. This exercise is still propaedeutic for a further development, which is introduced as follows:
Disenchantment (nibbindati) means that what was previously transparent and hence invisible but has become opaque. What in ordinary life is assumed as the default attitude towards experience (namely, appropriating the aggregates and mastering uncertainty) is seen in its own right and understood as a form of self-delusion. This makes it impossible to believe in its validity anymore, to the point out that the forms of appropriations and mastery that were predicated upon that assumption collapse, having being deprived of their basis. This form of disenchantment allows things to appear ‘according to nature’ (Pāli yathābhūtaṃ) as originally and naturally belonging to nobody. All passions, concerns, worries, troubles connected with the attempt to defend anything in them that was appropriated as ‘mine’ against the tide of their own uncertainty becomes meaningless, hence, one becomes ‘dispassionate.’ Mastering is something that one does, doing requires intentionality, and intentionality requires motives. Dispassion is the dissolution of those motives that supported grasping. A feedback circle sustains the two: grasping is fueled by passions, which in turn are re-enacted through grasping; but disenchantment breaks the grasping, which thus stop feeding back and supporting those passions from which grasping itself emerges.
According to the Buddha, it is dispassion that brings liberation. Liberation is liberation from grasping and appropriation, it depends and is experienced when grasping ceases. Again, this has little to do with ontology, it does not concern the sort of reality that one is or becomes. Liberation is also something that one does or enacts. One ceases to be compulsively attached to the idea of having to master uncertainty.
- See discussion in Rupert Gethin, ‘The Five Khandas: Their Treatment in the Nikāyas and Early Abhidharma’ (1986); and Jonardon Ganeri, The Self (2012), chapter 7. ↵
- Sometimes impermanence is explained in terms of ‘constant flux,’ a process of becoming in which states succeeds each other extremely rapidly, without retaining any identity. But this notion of ‘constant flux’ is conceptually flawed, since no diversity can be asserted without a degree of identity, and hence no change can take place without something enduring and remaining unchanged or at rest (absolute change is thus impossible). This is the point already well argued for by Plato in his doctrine of the five great kinds expounded in the Sophist (Lecture Eight). Ñāṇavīra Thera argued extensively against the traditional interpretation of anicca as ‘constant flux.’ See discussion in his Letter 12, 4 March 1964, and Letter 14, 2 May 1964, both to Mr. Wijerama, in Clearing the Path (2010), 167–182. ↵
- See further discussion of this point in Andrea Sangiacomo, ‘The Meaning of Existence (bhava) in the Pāli Discourses of the Buddha’ (2022). ↵